The Best and Worst Foods for the Environment

A new study shows the environmental and health impact of many common foods -- the worst offender may surprise you

There are all sorts of health benefits from cutting down on animal products, but according to this new study from the Environmental Working Group, consuming less meat and dairy is equally beneficial for the planet. The EWG partnered up with environmental analysis group CleanMetrics to evaluate the health and environmental impact of 20 commonly consumed proteins, vegetables and grains.

Studying factors including digestion-generated methane, feed production, processing, transportation and waste, the EWG created a handy chart ranking foods by both carbon footprint and healthfulness. 

Ringing in at the greenest (and perhaps the least surprising) are lentils, beans, tofu, tomatoes and 2 percent milk, all low-fat, good-for-you foods with very low greenhouse gas emissions. 

In the middle of the pack are nuts, rice, potatoes and eggs. These foods are slightly higher in fat but require more labor and resources when it comes to production.

This brings us to the final section of the study, one that's made up entirely of high fat animal products that have a larger impact on the environment, including salmon, pork, cheese and beef.

The worst meat of all? Surprisingly, it's lamb, which has the highest carbon footprint of all meats, including beef. According to the study, beef and lamb generate comparable amounts of methane and require similar quantities of feed, but lamb generates more emissions because sheep, which are smaller in size, produce less edible meat.

According to the study, scaling back on foods in the "red zone" has staggeringly postive environmental effects. A four person family forgoing steak one night a week is the equivilant of taking a car off the road for nearly three months. Skipping a burger once a week is the energy equivalent of line-drying your clothes half the time.

If you do feel like eating beef, lamb, cheese or any other high-impact foods, making responsible choices can help. Leaner cuts of meat, less proccessed foods and low-fat dairy products will keep your waistline trim, and sustainably raised proteins will help protect the environment. At the grocery store, look for key words such as local, grass-fed, "Best Choice" (when you're shopping for seafood), organic and unprocessed.

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